Dear Alaere by Eriye Onagoruwa is a splendid novel. The storytelling is fluid. It bears no markers of intelligent posturing, instead it focuses on developing Alaere, the main character while other characters are known largely through the eyes, sentiments and realities of Alaere. The storyteller finds a nexus between diary writing and the journey of self-awareness in a hugely chaotic yet impressive city. She puts down few reflections in her diary and makes up for time with trying to live a full life of layered suspense. She tries to navigate the realities of being a professional woman in a dynamic workplace filled with subtle warfare, politics and sexual harassment. She also juggles a multi-ethnic Nigerian family, filled with its own negotiations.
Alaere is a well-educated Ijaw woman who is married to Adelaja, a handsome and considerate Yoruba man. Although she enjoys his love, commitment, company and support, she tells us his sexual drive is a ‘short-lived’ one. Yet due to her moral and Christian disposition, she endures this marital quirk. She also endures her mother-in-law, a self-conceited Yoruba woman who works against the relationship because it has not produced a child for three years.
Adelaja seems like an emotional man; he weeps at his medical condition, halfheartedly persuades his wife to leave him and marry someone else, and breaks down at the loss of their newborn. He is torn between the loyalties between the women in his life and almost gets to a breaking point. He however begins to assert himself when he decides that he would not have his wife work in a place where both man and woman are sexually harassing his wife.
Alaere lives in Ikoyi, a posh area of Lagos that bears the rare semblance of social control. Yet, the chaos of Lagos intrudes daily. The infrastructural malaise, broad daylight robbery, untrammeled traffic gridlocks, fashion consciousness, roadside confectionaries and the daily engagement of news and music as markers of time and hope show Lagos as a place of comradeship and competitiveness on Sisyphean plain. Alaere is interested in what she wears, how she looks, how others look and how they smell. It is the norm in the city to look your best even if you do not earn so much or feel so good. It is part of the impressions; the workplace and personal branding that renders our lives as a part of the productive system of capital. The residents in the city can be neighbours and co-workers but can morph into ‘headlines’ for some high crime the next day. The author is interested in describing the pulse of landscapes, her descriptions and notions of the city serve as lessons for visitors and nostalgia for residents. Alaere and her husband visit Vancouver in order to have a safe delivery of their first issue. This affords the narrator to compare both cities and show that Lagos is not the ideal landscape for functional and equitable socioeconomic oppourtunities.
Most times, Alaere Benson goes to work escorted by her driver. The conversation with Alhaji Wasiu, her driver, shows not only the class disparity, the grinding poverty but also the shades of patriarchy that permeates the lower rung of the social ladder, and by extension, the majority in society. These social realties contribute to the pool of ideas within the framework of culture. Alaere Benson seem to have a conducive life by working at Neuterone, a consulting firm partly due to her father’s influence, but she constantly has to navigate the troupes of patriarchy, from her driver, her co-workers and her superiors at work. Alhaji Wasiu has six daughters; he continues to invent unbelievable ideas to achieve having a son through his ‘baby making machine’ wife, despite lacking the resources to feed the mouths at home. Alaere tries to dissuade him as courteously as possible, knowing full well that the subtle reference to her barrenness is also being engaged as an intertext in the conversation.
She joins Criole, a multinational energy firm, a mad house of egoistic and power mongering fellows who seek ethnic allegiances to undermine other people. These kinds of people would feel threatened by the entrant of a fluent, hardworking and beautiful woman. The range between rumour and reality is blurred, yet the evidence of truth is eventually brought to light. This novel is a rare exposé on the politics of the workplace and how workers in corporate spaces engage in behaviours that reflect the trademarks of corruption as well as the absence of equity, integrity and justice that pervades every sphere of Nigeria. Alaere chose to be an observer in the politics of the workplace, and perhaps became fascinated by the hypocrisy, fanaticism, malapropism and beggarly dispositions to workplace and life balance.
One is tempted to engage Eriye Onagoruwa, the author, on her depiction of her male characters as she seems to x-tray two kinds of men; ‘good’ men who are too emotional to brave through challenges on their own, and ‘lions’ who are all out hunting down the dignity of women. Nevertheless, the storyteller also engages women characters Kamarachimdi and Bin, who know how to play games, control men and women, and Anita who falls into multiple misfortune due to the gender imbalances in society. Alaere encounters haughty men, inconsiderate men, silent men and weak men (and women) because in work spaces there is usually a war of egos – some will win; some will align with ‘power brokers’; and some will be crushed by new or evolving environments.
While we conceive the workplace as an organisation where one can engage his career goals, a Nigerian woman’s career takes on a different dimension. The gaze of patriarchy convolutes her role as wife, daughter-in-law, career woman and mother into a workplace, where alertness and servitude is always expected of the female gender.
Femi Morgan is a writer, culture curator and media entrepreneur. He holds a Master of Arts degree in African Studies with speciality in Diaspora and Transnational Studies from the University of Ibadan. His MA thesis was Exile and Nostalgia in Segun Afolabi’s A LIfe Elsewhere. Femi is also the author of Renegade (2019), Whispers (2019), and three other books of poetry.